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High Key vs. Low Key Lighting

In the first part of this three-part series on playing around with external lights, we learned the importance of light. We also learned how we can use external lights in a situation where there is an abundant quantity of light. In this part, we shall delve into different lighting arrangements.

1. High Key Lighting = No Shadow

A high key lighting is a situation with an abundant quantity of light. But in this particular case, it is taken a step forward.

In other words, high key photography is a lighting arrangement which produces a near shadow-less environment.

High-key lighting can be created with a number of lights placed at different angles around the subject. A natural light situation is not ideal for this. Having said that it is not entirely impossible either.

Young Boy looking at flash bouncing into umbrella
Young Boy looking at flash bouncing into umbrella | Photo Credit: Eric Fleming

The most likely place you can create a high-key lighting situation is in a studio.

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You will need at least three lights. The more, the better!

The background should be white and the subject, if possible, should be wearing white as well.

If you don’t use a hand-held light meter a white dress is recommended as built-in light meters tend to go haywire with deeper colors.

If on the other hand, you do use a hand-held light meter (and it is a good piece of investment early in your career) you don’t have to worry about the color of the model’s dress.

The background preferably should remain white to accentuate the abundance of light in the scene and the overall high-key effect.

Related Post: How to set up Your Home Photography Studio

Right Exposure with Studio Lights

Dial in the shutter speed that you are going to use. With a studio strobe, you are basically limited to the sync speed of your camera (read more about high-speed sync mode in one of our previous tutorials on light).

Most cameras can sync at around 1/200 of a second without introducing a black bar in their images.

It means while using a flash you cannot set a shutter speed that is faster than 1/200 of a second.

So, let’s say shutter speed is 1/200 of a second. ISO is set to the lowest. Dial in the values to the light meter. Test the lights by triggering a test exposure and the light meter will give you the aperture value that you need for the exposure.

Now, even in manual mode and using a hand-held light meter your exposure may just be a tag under than what is ideal for a high-key effect. In this situation, you would have to adopt the age-old principle of ‘exposing to the right’.

Take a test shot and find out whether the exposure is bright enough and more importantly shadow-less enough. Adjust by increasing the exposure (usually by setting a power output for the lights) by one-third or whole stops.

Video: High Key vs Low Key Light

2. Low key lighting = High Contrast & Shadows

Low key lighting is the reverse of a high-key lighting arrangement. In low-key the number of lights is usually just one.

The light is set up deliberately in a way so that there is a lot of contrast and shadows in the final image. The light is almost never placed straight on. It is either set up at a steep angle to the right or left of the camera or placed above the head of the subject.

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The latter you may have seen in Hollywood movies especially where a suspect is being interrogated. It can even be placed directly behind the subject for a more sinister looking image.

Understanding Low Key Lighting Example: Portrait of young man in hat
Low Key Lighting: Only one source of light | Portrait of young man in hat | Stock Image

You may have seen this type of lighting too in Hollywood movies where the identity of an individual is kept a secret. Low-key lighting is invariably used in conjugation with the dark background and dark clothes.

3. The lack of light

I have seen far too many images where amateur photographers have shot a night-time portrait with some twinkling lights at the background and made a hash of everything.

Portrait at night in Dubai
At low light, use the ambient light flash mode | Portrait shot at night | Photo Credit: Tue S. Dissing

They tried to capture a soft blur of those twinkling lights by using a wide aperture and then used a flash to illuminate the subject’s face. The idea’s correct. But the application and the result usually turns out far from expected.

In a situation like this, instead of using the normal flash mode, you should use the ambient light mode flash.

In this, the camera takes into account the background lights, exposes for that and then fires just the right amount of light to illuminate the face.


  • Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. He loves to test and review new photography gear. He has been writing about cameras and lenses for over 10 years now. You can consider him as your "master guide" here at PhotoWorkout.

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